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Political Activities - Pariah or Possibility?

By Dan Brunette

dan burnettEngaging with government officials provides charities with a powerful voice in shaping public policy and ensuring that our elected officials are well-informed. But some organizations are uncomfortable engaging in such advocacy, worried they are crossing into prohibited activity that might cost their organizations their charitable status.

Fortunately, the Canada Revenue Agency has provided the sector with clear direction, in the form of policy CPS-022. AFP members in Canada should familiarize themselves with this document and include it as a resource for their board members and colleagues.

A simple rule of thumb is that if a charity is merely sharing its knowledge, expertise and perspectives with government officials, it does so as part of its mandate, thus making the action in question a charitable activity, not a political one. This covers most of the interactions with government officials, and it gives all of us in the sector wide latitude for educating our government officials. It’s that simple!

Political activities themselves have a specific aim: to change, retain or oppose a law, policy or decision of a government and involve explicit communications to the public, a call to political action or materials to this effect. In a nutshell, a charity can spend up to ten percent of its resources on non-partisan political activity, as long as it supports its stated purposes. This is categorized as "permitted political activity" and can include a march, a media campaign on an issue or even buying an advertisement to pressure the government. It also includes amounts gifted to other charities or qualified donees, where the grant is ultimately intended for political activities. 

Charities must also understand what is strictly prohibited at all times, which is summed up by the non-partisan rule: a charity cannot put any time or resources into supporting, directly or indirectly, a political party or candidate.

In essence, charities should embrace advocacy as an integral part of everyday work in advancing their cause, especially since most of what they do will fall under charitable activities and will not even be considered “political activity.”

I strongly urge you to download and share policy CPS-022 with your staff and board. Engaging in public policy is another way we can help advance our profession and strengthen philanthropy for the benefit of the people we serve.

Dan Brunette is the current chair of the AFP Canadian Government Relations Committee and the immediate past-resident of the AFP Ottawa Chapter. Dan also serves on a number of committees both within and outside of AFP, as well as two charity boards. He is the director of development and donor services for the Community Foundation of Ottawa.

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